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By Katharine Shilcutt
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Our waitress at the Monument Inn in La Porte was a very savvy lady. Thanks to her sage counsel, we started off our meal splitting a decent shrimp salad with lots of big, fresh boiled shrimp. I told her that I had once been served little broken pieces of mealy shrimp at Monument Inn, and I wanted to avoid them this time. She confided that the little shrimp usually are the ones used in the shrimp salad. They are marinated in Italian dressing. The trick to getting a good shrimp salad, she explained, was to skip the Italian dressing.
4406 Independence Parkway S.
La Porte, TX 77571
Region: Outside Houston
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All-you-can-eat seafood: $27.95
Shrimp salad: $9.95
Fisherman's platter: $18.95
Poor boy: $9.95
Fried shrimp (8): $12.95
If you substitute another dressing, you get large, freshly boiled shrimp instead of the little broken ones. The salad of mixed greens, big cucumber and tomato slices and hard-boiled eggs we got was ordinary, and I didn't love the Thousand Island dressing. But I sure liked those big shrimp.
We also wanted to avoid the imported New England scallops, Pacific salmon and farm-raised tilapia in favor of the best local seafood, I told her. She recommended the fisherman's platter. It sounded boring, but we were pleasantly surprised.
The platter contained the Monument Inn's greatest local hits, starting with the main attraction — big, juicy fried shrimp. The kitchen starts with jumbo shrimp, butterflies them, lightly batters them and cooks them just long enough to get done. Every fried shrimp I've had there has been exceptional.
It's crab season, and I really enjoyed the big, deep-fried stuffed crab on the platter, even though the filling tasted more like spicy bread crumbs than crabmeat. I am a sucker for the crunchy crust on top. The fried oysters were small and overdone, but it's not the best time of year for oysters anyway. The stuffed shrimp tasted a lot like the stuffed crab — they probably had the same filling. And while catfish isn't exactly seafood, the golden-fried fish filet was crispy and greaseless. The rest of the fisherman's platter was filled out with a huge pile of french fries.
Since we shared the shrimp salad and the fried seafood, there was more than enough food for both of us. If we were still hungry, we could have eaten the fresh-baked cinnamon rolls in the bread basket. The baked goods are a nod to the Monument Inn 's famous forerunner, the San Jacinto Inn, which once stood nearby.
Monument Inn serves around 200,000 customers a year. Sure, the fried shrimp is good, but it's the location that draws the crowds. This is a magical spot.
The San Jacinto Monument rises above the battleground where Sam Houston caught General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna and his Mexican Army napping on the afternoon of April 21, 1836. Surrounded by refinery towers, the concrete column with the star on top doesn't exactly inspire awe when you see it from State Highway 225 while driving through Deer Park. But it's pretty impressive close up.
Plaques in the parking lot remind you of the momentous events that took place where you are standing. One plaque commemorates the "Runaway Scrape," the exodus of thousands of Texans and Tejanos fleeing Santa Anna; many were driven to this spot by the Mexican Army. These refugees camped beside the bayou during the battle of San Jacinto awaiting the outcome.
I walked across the restaurant's lawn to the concrete blocks of the breakwater and talked to a guy who was fishing. He told me he had caught a lot of redfish from this spot over the years, but nothing today. He pointed to a group of people checking crab traps along the shoreline and said that's where the action was.
A couple of birdwatchers sporting binoculars told me they had just seen some rare ducks in the marsh behind the restaurant. And on the way in the front door of the Monument Inn, we ran into a Battle of San Jacinto re-enactor dressed as a soldier in the Republic of Texas Army.
From the second-story dining room of the restaurant, picture windows look out over the busiest marine intersection on the waterfront. Darting in between a steady stream of barges and tankers going up and down the Houston Ship Channel, the Lynchburg Ferry, the oldest ferryboat in Texas, carries cars and passengers across Buffalo Bayou. The ferry has been operating continuously since 1888.
The original ferry-crossing restaurant was called San Jacinto Inn. It was opened on the north shore in 1918 by Jack Sanders and his wife, Bertha. The five-table restaurant served whatever fish Jack Sanders caught in Buffalo Bayou along with his wife's biscuits. After the restaurant burned down, the Sanderses relocated to a spot near the current location of the Battleship Texas.
During the 1920s, San Jacinto Inn charged $1 for an all-you-could-eat buffet; the price rose to $2 in the 1930s. The fare might be fish, shrimp or oysters, or it might include fried chicken. The restaurant became famous in 1925 when a national advertising conference being held in Houston hired the restaurant to serve attendees. Some 5,000 people were fed at picnic tables lined up along the bayou. The advertising folk spread the word about San Jacinto Inn across the country.
The two-story building that people remember as the San Jacinto Inn was built in 1927. The all-you-can-eat seafood spread and Bertha's biscuits were Houston favorites for decades. Bertha Sanders continued to run the kitchen until her death in 1952.
The Monument Inn opened in 1974 and has taken over the tradition of the big two-story all-you-can-eat seafood restaurant at the battleground.
The first time I went to the Monument Inn, I ordered the all-you-can-eat seafood special. "It's a tradition," I explained to my dubious dining companion, who frowned on such a display of gluttony. She got a catfish poor boy.
The all-you-can-eat seafood special started with a half dozen oysters on the half shell. I don't eat raw oysters in the summer as a rule, but I tried a couple. They were skinny and tasteless, as summer oysters tend to be. Next came a big basket of boiled shrimp. I usually love boiled shrimp, but these were terrible. The tiny shrimp looked like they'd been frozen together in a brick and then pulled apart. There were mangled shrimp and soggy shells all through the basket. I picked out the best-looking specimens I could find. They tasted watery. (These are the shrimp I complained to the waitress about on my later visit.) My tablemate munched on her excellent poor boy and giggled at my comeuppance.
The waiter asked me if I wanted seconds on boiled shrimp or oyster, but I declined. Finally, the second course arrived. It was a huge platter of fried seafood. After two or three of the aforementioned fried shrimp, I forgot all about the lackluster first course. The fried seafood plate contained the same fried oysters, stuffed crab, and fried catfish I would later enjoy on the fisherman's platter — only there were a lot more of them.
I had to get the famous all-you-can-eat seafood special so I could describe the experience, but when I was done, I felt a lot of regret. At least half of the fried shrimp and oysters were left uneaten. You can't get a doggie bag with the all-you-can-eat special. I probably would have suffered a coronary if I ate it all, but I hated to throw all that delicious fried seafood away.
No doubt we are all a lot healthier since the fried seafood platter went out of fashion. But a visit to the Monument Inn is a great excuse to indulge in a little backsliding. Fried seafood is not only the best thing on the menu here, it's part of the whole nostalgic experience. But get the fisherman's platter, not the all-you-can-eat seafood special.
Regardless of the hit-or-miss menu, I'm glad I finally visited the Monument Inn. The battleground and the monument are a must for Texas history buffs. And the view from the restaurant is terrific. I could sit there all day long, watching the ships roll in and eating fried shrimp.
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